School of Kells

Author: Catholic Encyclopedia

School of Kells

Kells (in Gaelic Cenannus) was the chief of the Irish Columban monasteries. It was founded most probably in 554, that is nine years before Columba founded Iona, and during the saint's life was eclipsed by the greater fame of the insular monastery. Kells still contains several ancient monuments which tradition closely connects with Columba's residence there. Of these the most interesting is "Columba's House", a tall high-pitched building, of which the ground floor formed an oratory, while the croft between the convex arching of the oratory and the roof of the building was the chamber or sleeping compartment of the saint. There are also two fine crosses dating probably from the ninth century, when Kells held the principatus of all the Columban monasteries both in Erin and Alba -- one stands in the market-place and the other in the churchyard. The latter is a finely sculptured cross, having on the plinth the inscription Patricii et Columbae [crux], which would seem to imply that it was intended to commemorate the memory of Patrick, who founded the original church of Kells, and Columba, who founded the monastery. There is also a fine round tower, still ninety feet high, built doubtless during the Danish wars to protect the church and monastery. The "Book of Kells", called also the Great Gospel of Columcille, which legend attributed to the pen of Columcille himself, was preserved in Kells down to Usher's time. It was stolen in 1006, when the gold was stripped off its cover, but the book and case were afterwards found in a bog. It was regarded as the "chief relic of the western world", and Professor Westwood of Oxford declared that "it is unquestionably the most elaborately executed manuscript of so early a date now in existence." It is preserved at present in Trinity College, Dublin.

Kells and Iona were always closely connected. Shortly after the burning of Iona by the Danes in 802, its abbot fortunately got "a free grant of Kells without a battle" -- for it had originally belonged to Columcille. Thereupon a "new religious city" -- the old one being probably in ruins -- was rebuilt in Kells; and the Abbot Cellach of Iona transferred his residence and insular primacy to Kells, which henceforward became the acknowledged head of the Columban houses. The abbot also carried with him the shrine of Columba, which, however, more than once crossed and re-crossed the sea throughout the ninth century. During this and the two following centuries Kells became a great school of learning and art, and continued to flourish in spite of the frequent ravages of the Danes. The celebrated Cathach, the battle-standard of the O'Donnells, was preserved in the monastery and enshrined there in a beautifully wrought casket. It contained a psaltery said to have been written by the hand of Columba himself. Mac Robartaigh, Comharb of Kells, had its marvellous cover made in his own house. His family belonged to Tirhugh in County Donegal, and gave many abbots and sages and scholars at this period to the school of Kells. The most famous of them all was the renowned Marianus Scotus -- an Irish Muredach Mac Robartaigh -- a celebrated scribe and commentator on Scripture, to be carefully distinguished from his namesake, Marianus Scotus, the chronicler. Leaving his beloved Kells he journeyed all the way to Ratisbon, a pilgrim for Christ, and there founded for his countrymen in the land of the stranger the celebrated Monastery of St. James. He himself unwearyingly copied the Scriptures, and is described by Aventinus in his "Annals of Bavaria" as "a distinguished poet and theologian, second to no man of his time". The poems are lost, but the commentaries survive though still unpublished.

They include a commentary on the Psalms, which was considered so valuable that it was not allowed outside the walls of the monastic library without a valuable deposit being left to secure its safe return. There is also extant in the Cotton collection an unpublished codex containing the treatise of Marianus Scotus consisting of "Extracts from the Writings of Various Doctors on the Gospel". His most famous work, however, was a commentary on St. Paul's Epistles, with marginal and interlinear notes. It is still unpublished amongst the treasures of the Imperial Library of Vienna, and is especially valuable because it contains many entries in the pure Middle Gaelic of the eleventh century, written by a man who was at once an accomplished scribe and most excellent Irish scholar. This learned work shows that Marianus was acquainted with the writings of nearly all the Latin Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries. It was completed, he tells us himself, on Friday, the sixteenth day before the Kalends of June, 1079. The devoted scribe and commentator, who is commonly and justly styled the Blessed Marianus Scotus, lived for ten years more, and after his death was universally regarded as a saint. He was, after Adamnan, Abbot of Hy, justly esteemed as the greatest glory of the Columban schools. His namesake, the chronicler, died some six years before him.

JOHN HEALY Transcribed by Paul Knutsen

From the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright © 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version copyright © 1996 by New Advent, Inc.

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